Noblesse oblige has been a strong force for good in human history. Many of the world's great symphonies and works of art were commissioned by kings and aristocrats. Libraries and concert halls were built by industrial magnates. The notion that privilege entailed responsibility acted as a civilizing influence on societies from ancient Greece to 19th century America.
After the Second World War, it fell out of favor. People came to see it as a condescending and self-aggrandizing form of charity.
But now it's springing up anew. Last week, American multi-billionaires Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett announced that 40 of the richest people in the U.S. had joined them in pledging to give away at least half of their wealth.
"We're looking forward to enlisting many of these 40 to go out and make some calls also, so we can report an even greater milestone," Buffett said. "But we're off to a terrific start."
Their campaign to enlist the wealthiest people in the United States began in June (although they held recruiting dinners for a year before that). Within two months, the founders had approached 80 billionaires and signed up half. They still have 320 American billionaires to contact.
Today's philanthrocapitalists don't use terms such as noblesse oblige. They don't consider themselves gentry. And most didn't inherit their wealth. But the kind of altruism they're promoting bears a strong resemblance to the rank-based benevolence of a bygone era.
Now, as in ancient Greece, pre-Renaissance France or Victorian England, their actions will improve the well-being of those less blessed than themselves.
But their munificence will exacerbate three troubling trends:
- Regular citizens will reduce their charitable giving, thinking they've been let off the hook or assuming their donations are too small to count in this era of multi-billion-dollar private largesse.
That is already happening in North America. In Canada, the number of donors has been shrinking since the early 1990s. In Statistics Canada's latest survey (2007) of charitable giving, 21 per cent of Canadians accounted for 82 per cent of the value of donations.
- Business tycoons, media moguls and investment gurus will set society's priorities in areas ranging from humanitarian assistance to cancer research.
This, too, is apparent to anyone who walks along University Ave. checking hospital nameplates or visits any major university campus. It is also evident in the increasing emphasis on business principles in international development.
- Anonymous giving will be eclipsed by high-profile philanthropy. One of the stipulations of the Gates-Buffet campaign is that those who take the pledge must publicly state their intention and post a letter online explaining their decision.
This emphasis on conspicuous - almost competitive - charity has been growing for some time. Here in Canada, benefactors such as Peter Munk of Barrick Gold, Mike Lazaridis of Research in Motion and Barry Sherman of Apotex have welcomed the spotlight.
It would be churlish to criticize these public-spirited billionaires. But it would be unfair to relegate non-wealthy donors, who devote a substantial portion of their time, effort and means to charitable causes, to second-tier status.
Times have changed. Noblesse oblige, while still commendable, springs from a social order in which vast disparities of wealth are accepted as immutable. It is a tradition that makes no allowance for what ordinary people can do, individually and collectively, to make life better for all. Nor does it include a role for democratically elected governments.
It is heartening to see a blossoming of altruism in high places. But it is not the dawn of a new era. It is the revival of a very old model of charity.
Carol Goar's column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday in the Toronto Star.